St Finbar's Brighton East Parish
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St Finbar's
86 Centre Road, Brighton East, VIC 3187
Fr Ian Ranson
9593 2122
9 am - 3.30 pm Tuesday & Thursday


History (from Wikipedia)

Saint Finbarr, or Finnbarr,  born in 550 and died in 633, was Bishop of Cork and abbot of a monastery in what is now the city of Cork, Ireland. He is patron saint of that city and of the Diocese of Cork.   His feast day is September 25.

The word Finbar roughly translates to “fairhead”, which name he was given after completing his studies.  He was responsible for the building of a number of churches, including one in Ballineadig, County Cork, called Cell na Cluaine, where he died in 633.  His later life was mostly in the city of Cork, where he was a leading figure in the development of Cork as an important centre of learning (“where Finbarr taught, let Munster learn”).

St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork was completed in 1879, and was the first major work of the Victorian-era architect William Burges.

St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork.

Since 1847 at East Brighton

The main sources of information for this history have been:

Kelliher, Georgina, "St. Finbar's Parish Primary School East Brighton 1848-1976, printed in 1976, and containing much detail on people and events over the years.

Gleeson, Rosemary, "Fair ... is our Inheritance, a three-act Religious Drama to celebrate the Sesquicentenary of St Finbar's Parish, East Brighton 1848 - 1998", written and performed in 1998.

Gleeson, Rosemary, "Our Corner in History", published for the students at St Finbar's School, in 2000.

This sum has been offered by Mr Richard Martin, farmer, Little Brighton, to whose exertions chiefly may be attributed the commencement and erection of the little church, and the consequent consolation to the Catholics fo the locality to have divine service celebrated amongst them.”

However, the money was not required, for Mr J B Were, a "Protestant gentleman" who was Henry Dendy's business manager (Dendy was the original owner of Brighton), donated a block of land at the corner of Centre Road and Point Nepean Road.

A further meeting on 6 January 1848, presided over by Dean Nicholas Coffey, arranged erection of the weatherboard building, and on Sunday 30 April 1848, at 11 o'clock (as reported in the Melbourne Argus), the Dean celebrated Mass in the new church/school, dedicating it to St Patrick.  (Dean Coffey was born in 1801, was ordained in Ireland, and only spent a short time in Melbourne, having spent most of his time in Australia in Parramatta, where he died in 1857).

He was appointed to East Brighton by Vicar-General Patrick Bonaventure Geoghegan, who was appointed to that role by Bishop James Alipius Goold. 

To read more about the Vicar-General, click on this link:  Geoghegan, Patrick Bonaventure           (1805–1864) Roman Catholic bishop  at the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Now, read a more detailed history of the foundation of our church


(INTRODUCTION – this next section is taken, largely verbatim, from Chapter 2 of Rosemary Gleeson’s booklet “Our Corner in History – the story, for the students, of our three schools at 90 Centre Road, East Brighton”, published in 2000.  References and footnotes have been omitted.)

Father Patrick Bonaventure Geoghegan OSF was thirty-four years of age when he was sent to 'the Settlement" in 1839. An Irishman who had come to New South Wales in 1838, he was brimful of energy and, by his eloquent oratory and emphasis on civil and religious liberty for all, soon had a following from among many more than the Roman Catholics in what was then still a village.

At that time Roman Catholics in the area numbered about five hundred. Each Sunday those who lived in, or close to the village used meet at the home of a French carpenter, Peter Bodecin, to recite the Rosary and the Litanies. This home was situated where the Olderfleet Buildings now stand in Collins Street. But let us not be thinking it was a pretentious building - more likely a fairly make-shift, simple abode, hastily erected.  For to quote Geoghegan himself, in 1839 the village " ... possessed of but a few huts ... and very few people."

With his energy and still youthful enthusiasm Patrick Bonaventure set to work to raise money for the erection of a solid church. In the students' manual I have condensed the story of the building of St. Francis' Church but relay it here in more detail. Before Geoghegan's arrival there had been a temporary chapel erected adjacent to Bodecin's cottage but it was insufficient for the growing number of Catholics. On his arrival, therefore, Geoghegan at once initiated an appeal for funds to erect a more suitable building. £12O was raised but to be allocated a government grant of land for a church plus a salary for himself of £150 he needed his parishioners to have submitted a minimum of £300.

Geoghegan's flock was not a wealthy one and even though those of other denominations gave generously he did not have the requisite amount. As a temporary measure PB set about building a larger chapel to house four hundred people on an allotment in the township. Before the building had gone too far Lonsdale gave permission to occupy the previously determined site for the church on the corner of Elizabeth and Lonsdale Sts. The temporary chapel was dismantled and re-erected on the proposed site and Mass was celebrated on this land, a 'mecca' for Catholics ever since, on July 28, 1839.

When the £300 was raised the government authorities ceded the title to the plot of land to the Trustees of the Roman Catholic church and the laying of the foundation stone of what we have always known and loved as St. Francis Church took place on the feast of that Saint, 4 October, 1841. The first Mass was celebrated in the partially completed building on Sunday, 22 May, 1842. Could Fr. Geoghegan ever have envisaged that the church for which he strove valiantly as a place of worship for his flock would ultimately become a home of prayer for possibly millions in the following one hundred and fifty years? What a gem did he and the architect, Samuel Jackson, leave to generations of worshippers.

By October 1841 the Catholic population of the town and district had grown to 2173. PB was sent an assistant priest and in the quick succession of assistant clergy do we see the solo nature of the man's character. Whilst 'Garryowen' could say of Fr. Geoghegan: -" ... a round, chubby, natty little man, a perfect picture of health and cheerfulness and though most uncompromising in maintaining his rights and privileges, was as liberal minded and tolerant as he was kind-hearted and charitable. There never has been so universal a favourite with all classes."  it would seem this was not a view shared by many of his assistant priests. Geoghegan quarrelled with the first of these, Fr. Richard Walsh who went to a convict chaplaincy on Norfolk Island in 1840. The second, Fr. Ryan, also failed to see 'eye to eye' with Geoghegan. Relations between another curate, Fr. MacEvey and himself, although cordial to begin with in late 1842, had deteriorated so badly by 1845 that the Archbishop (Polding) felt he needed to consent to a separation of the two. Father Vincent Bourgeois and Geoghegan exchanged hurtful letters to each other whilst in the same presbytery - which was but a small four roomed building. In fact, Fr. Bourgeois came as a curate to St. Francis on Jan 5, 1846 but by May of the same year had packed his bags and returned to Sydney. It says a great deal that nothing of these inner tempests was gleaned by the laity. On the two occasions when Geoghegan resigned as he did in April 1842 until September 1842 which saw his return to his office, and October 1846 until April 1847 when again he returned to his flock the parishioners and many others of different denominations were genuine in their sorrow to see him leave and were only too happy to have him return. On one occasion their gratitude was expressed tangibly in an offering of nearly 200 guineas much of which came from Protestant hands.

The issue of Geoghegan's being 'at odds' with his curates can be read fully in F. O'Kane's excellent book “A Path is Set”. But one clergyman who did seem to get along with Patrick Bonaventure was Dean Nicholas Coffey OSF and we, in Brighton, are particularly interested in this priest.  Of him 'Garryowen' was to write:   'Dean Coffey was an Irish priest, the very opposite of Geoghegan in size and physique, with a tongue that distilled brogue of such a soft and creamy flavour that it was like listening to Irish music to hear him speak ... he had all his (Geoghegan's) zeal, sincerity and bonhomie."

Dean Coffey came with Fr. Geoghegan when the latter returned from Sydney to St. Francis Church in 1847. He stayed until September 1850 when Archbishop Polding recalled him to the Sydney Archdiocese. On Dean Coffey’s departure Bishop Goold praised him for the "assiduity of the meek, gentle and consoling ministry." We are particularly interested in Dean Coffey because it was he, according to the Port Phillip Herald, who conducted the 6 January, 1848 meeting with the pioneer settlers in this Little Brighton area and encouraged them in their building of the chapel. So, see him after Mass on that day (a Holy Day of obligation: Feast of the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles -the visit of the Magi) talking to the flock and getting their feeling for the whole venture. Many of these people would have given generously to the appeal for St. Francis Church, and to the Irish Relief Fund to alleviate the suffering of the Great Famine in Ireland -which fund was launched in 1846 by Fr. Geoghegan. Several may also have been contributing to membership in the Society of the Friendly Brothers which organization PB commenced on 15 August, 1845. The Brothers were to visit the sick and, by means of voluntary public subscription, were to assist the destitute, irrespective of creed or nationality. There would have been many other calls on the people's small savings but here in Little Brighton their own personal need for the spiritual solace which a chapel, no matter how basic, could provide, was paramount.

So hear Dean Coffey with his soft, creamy brogue speaking to the people. Hear him gently persuading them or nodding assent to their own desire for a chapel. There is no doubt many of these people would have wanted such a venue. They had come out of an Ireland where their faith had been -unsuccessfully -repressed for centuries. Travellers in Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had been amazed at the intensity and depth of prayer manifest in Irish Catholics across all age groups and social strata; and as manifest in men as in women. William Thackeray, no great lover of Catholicism, wrote in 1843: "... it was evident the heart of devotion was there: the immense crowd moaned and swayed, and you heard the hum of all sorts of wild ejaculations, each man praying seemingly for himself while the service went on at the altar."  In the same year a German tourist was to observe: '"The divine service here was more sacred and more solemn than I had observed it elsewhere. ...In Dublin there prevails the strictest, the most uniform discipline. AII are attentive to the bell and when its first tinkling sounds are heard every knee, without distinction, bends in reverence . . . There was piety, there was true religion in the looks of all ... The people around me prayed aloud, so loudly that I could hear distinctly what they said in their prayers ... when the consecration was completed and the priest raised the sacrament in his hand - I could hear the poor people near me strike themselves on the breast with such force, that the blows re-echoed through the church ."

One of the results of the repression of their faith had meant that there were very few churches in which to worship. In fact, the word 'church' was used by the ruling Anglican ascendency; all other denominations had 'chapels'. The 'chapels' that most Irish knew were often referred to as 'Mass Houses' as distinct from the more solidly built chapel. These Mass Houses were basic four walled wooden buildings, usually with a thatched roof, a couple of windows, often a clay floor. They generally measured about 10 metres by 4.5 metres. In 1752 there had been 832 simple Mass Houses and 52 private chapels registered. Wherever a landlord would not offer help, people gathered for Mass in the open at a Mass Rock. It was with this thinking that our earliest settlers would have come out of Ireland and how natural to want to re-create, in their new Antipodean home, a little of what they'd remembered, really, as a necessity of life. 

In those times it was considered to be in the interest of the public good, as well as being seen as a gesture of largesse, for a wealthy land-owner to bestow land for the erection of a chapel and school. This was encouraged by the civic authorities for religion was seen to be a moral and civilizing force. It has always been stated that JB Were donated two acres to the Roman Catholic Church but on the evidence of the Port Phillip Herald 16 Nov. 1847 and even more importantly on the evidence of Land Victoria Document 48150 it does appear quite strongly that JB donated the corner block and Fr. Geogeghan purchased the block where our original church/school and the subsequent 1871/72 and 1985 extension are, Believing this to be the case we can therefore wonder why the chapel was sited on the land purchased by Fr. Geogeghan. The most logical answer is that the deeds of conveyancing between N Were and Archbishop Polding were not implemented until 17 April 1849 and between Archbishop Polding and the Right Reverend James Alipius Goold on 24 July, 1849. Fr. Geogeghan probably considered it wiser to construct the chapel on land to which he presumably had the title.

We'll probably also never know for sure where the first Catholics in the area did meet to offer Mass before the erection of the chapel. But the usual custom was to gather at a home or an inn. Since April, 1847 there had been a small inn on the corner of Union Street and Arthur's Seat Road. (From this date there has always been a pub on this site and for a couple of decades in the latter part of this century we knew it as Sierakowski's Hotel; more recently it is Dan Murphy's Liquor Outlet.) The publican was Robert Keys, son of a Northern Irish Protestant who had emigrated with his five young sons in 1841. Robert and his wife were very amenable to the many Roman Catholics in the region, as can be seen by their names being included on the list of donors for the chapel. Mass could well have been celebrated here. Possibly the greatest expression of good will and harmony that existed in the local community can be gauged by the article in the Port Phillip Herald of 4 May, 1848 which is the most important article in confirming the Opening Mass in our first little church –


On Sunday (30/4/48) the Reverend Dean Coffey opened this place of worship by the celebration of Mass. A large number of persons attended and a sum of £10/14/6 was subscribed in aid of the funds; this included the handsome sum of £5 from Mr. Thomas M Crosbie. This little structure was only a short time in course of erection and tells much in favour of the spirit of the limited number of residents there. We have been requested to state that the several persons of other religious persuasions have displayed much liberality in contributing towards the building which must be attended with the best results in promoting those kindly feelings which should exist in every community.' 

There are several in the August 1848 list of donors (see above table) whose names appear only on that list. Some of these then, were doubtless of 'other persuasions' and were simply well-wishers. Among people in Brighton and Little Brighton the name TM Crosbie with its liberal donation of £5 must have spelt entrepreneurship par excellence. For in November 1844 Crosbie took over the Brighton Omnibus, renaming it the Brighton Mail car; he was already running another vehicle at this time. The next month, December, saw him advertising the Brighton Baths - on four wheels, for hygienic purposes (it was some years before swimming became acceptable). Crosbie then proceeded to hold the only licensed booth on the Race course at Green Point in 1846 and in 1847 he became the licensee of the Brighton Hotel at Green Point. He had actually initiated the races at Green Point in 1845 and to him fell the responsibility of maintaining the course. However, as licensee of the adjacent hotel he no doubt received a handsome reward in bar takings on the days of the races! Then sadly, the hotel was sold for only £500 in April 1848 and we hear of him no more. We know not whether he was Catholic or Protestant. Simply that, in those early days, he donated to the chapel fund. One can only hope he, and those many others whose history is not known to us, may have done well and been blessed throughout their lives. 

As Dean Coffey rode along the road to Little Brighton (I’ve suggested he came in a buggy because he would have carried vessels and vestments for Mass but there's no doubt these could have been carried in a saddlebag) what may have been some of his thoughts? Apart from the sheer joy of listening to the bird songs, breathing in the incredibly pure air and noticing the other land animals, thoughts of those laity involved in the embryonic church in the Port Phillip District may well have crossed his mind.

Among those prominent within the infant church was John O'Shanassy who, with his family, had emigrated on the same ship as JB Were in 1839. O'Shanassy was initially bound for Sydney but, meeting Fr. Geogeghan here in Melbourne, was persuaded by that man to remain here. At first he leased a cattle run from the estate of Henry Dendy but, being unsuccessful, he then established a Draper's Store. In 1846 O'Shanassy was elected to the Melbourne Municipal Council and his civic and parliamentary career took off from this point. He was to be Premier of Victoria three times and took vigorous part in the movement for separation. Of O’Shanassy 'Garryowen' was to write:- "... no man, be he priest or bishop, ever served the church of which he was a worshipper with more zeal or dis-interestedness than Sir John O'Shanassy did at a time when such services were as rare as they were priceless."  O’Shanassy died May 5, 1883 and a solemn Requiem Mass was offered for his soul in St. Patrick's Cathedral, May 7.

Edward Curr was another who had been a prominent citizen in the early 1840's. But his son had died in 1846 and in the period we are discussing Curr was living in retirement at his home, St. Helliers, which site was to become part of the Abbotsford Convent. Indeed, Edward himself died on Nov. 16, 1850, aged only 52. Of him the Melbourne newspaper Argus was to write:- "It was he who first gave power and substance to the prayers of the colonists to be separated from the Middle District. To his pen may be traced nearly every argument that strengthened the cause and achieved the victory. Clear in his views and perspicuous in thought he gave direction to their intelligence." 

As a young lad growing up in England Curr had been school-fellow with Polding. He sailed first to Tasmania where he began as a shopkeeper and went on to become a magistrate and manager of the enorrnous Van Diemen's Land Company holdings in Circular Head District. Curr accepted nomination by Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Arthur to the colony's Legislative Council only on condition that he did not have to take the customary oath repudiating the doctrine of the Eucharist. On coming to Melbourne Curr stood for election for the newly formed Legislative Council which was to meet in Sydney. An indication of his wealth may be gleaned by this fact for eligibility for candidature and franchise depended upon possession of property – a qualification which excluded the majority of the population. In the 1843 election Curr was defeated by the blindly anti-Catholic Protestant parson John Dunmore Lang, but he was elected in September 1845 when the occupant of the seat resigned. However Curr himself resigrted in May 1846 due to the death of his son. He died at the very time when news of the Royal Assent to separation was being received with such joy in Melbourne.

Edmund Finn alias 'Garryowen'was born in Co. Tipperary in 1819 and came to Melbourne in 1841 with his father and other members of his family. On his marriage his father gave him as a wedding gift a sizeable stone cottage in New Town, i.e. Fitzroy. 

New Town was Melbourne's first suburb. The area from Nicholson St. to Smith St. and from Victoria Parade to Moor St. was considered the 'higher ground' where better houses were situated whilst down on the lower areas especially around Moor and Brunswick Sts. were mud hovels, shanties, a conglomeration of huts. Many of Melbourne's distinguished families did live in New Town. The city merchant Chas. Payne, the solicitor JW Dunbar, the barrister Eyre Williams, the public magistrate Major St. John and the Deputy Registrar of the Supreme Court J D Pinnock, all had their homes in this area. Miles Lewis says, "It was an area of respectable dwellings, but not of grand mansions."

Alexander McKillop with his young wife Flora, and baby Mary Helen now the canonised Mary McKillop, the first of their eight children, had lived briefly in New Town. Shortly after their marriage in July, 1840 (in St. Francis Church and by Fr. Geogeghan) Alexander purchased a home for £700 on land abutting Brunswick Street (see plaque in pavement at top end of Brunswick Street now). They lived here happily for eighteen months only From 1839 Alexander aided Fr. Geogeghan in the administrative affairs of the infant church, having been made a Trustee of the Roman Catholic Church by Archbishop Polding. Regrettably the depression of 1843-4 affected Alexander badly and in over two and a half years he had lost £7000. From that time on the family was always poor, moving from place to place, from one lot of relatives to the next' Unfortunately Alexander's nature did not help his situation. According to Osmund Thorpe CP who wrote a biography of Mary McKillop in 1957 Alexander had a super-heated spirit, unwarranted optimism, enormous self-confidence and an overventuresome spirit. He had studied for the priesthood for seven years in his native Scotland and in Rome and, according to Thorpe had 'turned his back on it in a moment of wounded pride.' Given this background one could perhaps be justified in saying Alexander was not the most reliable of bread-winners nor, if Thorpe's estimation of his character is correct, was he the best model of paternity.

However, let us leave Dean Coffey and his thoughts of those men and women whose faith was such that they formed the embryonic church in the Port Phillip District and let us re-focus on Little Brighton where on Wednesday, 12 March, 1851 an august non-Catholic was to be of much more immediate interest to the children than any other devout Roman Catholics who happened to live near or far away in the township of Melbourne.

Bishop Goold (1812 - 1886) came to Melbourne in 1848, having travelled overland from Sydney, making the 966 km journey in a coach and four in 19 days.  He was an active force in the defence of Irish immigrant orphans who were attacked by the bureaucracy because of a perceived inability to assimilate into an urban community.   His legacy is large around Melbourne and Ballarat (where we was active in support of the miners after the Eureka rebellion) , until the 1880s.  At Brighton on 21 August 1882 he was fired at by an old acquaintance Peter O'Farrell, who had also fired at and wounded the Duke of Edinburgh in Sydney in 1868.  The Brighton Historical Society until recently used to conduct a walk around the area where the shooting happened, and it is understood that O'Farrell fired at almost point blank range but still managed to do no more than graze the Bishop.

St Finbar’s school is over 160 years old, dating from 30 April 1848, when Dean Coffey celebrated Mass in the newly erected church-school at Little Brighton.  By 1858, the school had started to run into financial difficulties when Father Patrick Niall (appointed as Parish Priest in 1853) found it almost impossible to gain sufficient funds to keep the school running.  Attendances were declining (attendance was not compulsory in those days) as children had divided responsibilities including assisting with hay and other crops.

 In June 1864, Father Niall held a meeting to solicit funds to build a new church as the old weatherboard one was in a bad state of repair.  The first stone of the new church was laid by Bishop Gould on Sunday 13 August 1871 and the brick building (still standing) was blessed and opened by Bishop Gould on 19 August 1872.  This church was now dedicated to St Finbar, and not, as previously, to St Patrick.  One of the unique features of the new church was its chimney.  There was a fireplace in the sacristy for the convenience of the priest who often had to travel many miles on horseback in all weathers.  However it does not appear to have been used very often – on one occasion when a fire was lit, the chimney was found to have been stuffed with birds’ nests and all present in the church were literally “smoked out”.

 In June 1876 father Matthew Carey became parish priest and one of his first tasks was to re-establish the school, which at that time was conducted during the week in the choir loft.  The loft was then used on Sundays for its original purpose by the choir established by Fr Carey.  However the school was very short-lived because of the loss of the equivalent of state aid in 1872.  Many private schools including St Finbar’s closed as a result.


The Brighton Mission ceased to exist in 1882 and Father Carey’s parish became known as Elsternwick.  The church of St Finbar was served consecutively from St Francis (Melbourne), St Mary's (East St Kilda), St James (Gardenvale) and lastly became a Chapel-of-ease of St Joan of Arc’s in New St, when the late Father Pat Fennessy was in charge there. 

It was not until 1940 that St Finbar’s became a parish church in its own right, when Father John Ashe assumed his appointment as Parish Priest, a position he held for many years.

Meanwhile a new St Finbar’s school was opened by Archbishop Mannix in 1924.

When Father Ashe arrived in 1940, he found the church in a bad state of repair, no presbytery and a crowded (one room with a dividing partition) school.  Money was raised to rectify this and a new presbytery was dedicated by Archbishop Mannix in January 1941.  In 1942 the Archbishop returned to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation and bless a new wing to the school, its first expansion since 1924.  Among the 187 enrolled pupils at the time were Bob Phyland and Margaret White (now his wife), who are still parishioners in 2015.

The school was further extended in 1950, 1966, 1971 and most recently the works carried out under Father Heriot’s watch in the early 2000s.

While Father Ashe was PP, and as the population of East Brighton grew, there was a need for more seating in the church, and the chapel dedicated to St Joseph was built – this is the late 1940s and early 1950s.  The St Joseph chapel was subsequently modified to what is now the sacristy and St Vincent de Paul corner of the church.

The construction work at that time meant demolition of the fire place and chimney in the sacristy, which had become quite a landmark in the area.  A large tree that had stood on the site for many years created difficulties for the builders, as it appeared to be most reluctant to move.  Much to the delight of the boys at the school, the tussle between man and tree went on for a number of days, with all sorts of tree felling devices employed initially all in vain.  Finally the tree fell, the chapel was completed and became an integral part of the church.

In Father Ashe’s time, the monthly Parish Chronicle was produced with all sorts of news from the parish, the school, Easter and Christmas offerings (name by name with amounts shown), and paid advertising by trades and business people in the area.  A copy of the Chronicle went to every household each month.

After Father Ashe, Father Paddy Fitzpatrick supervised the major modifications to the church which became the church as it now stands.  Until the 1980s, where the Lou Heriot Hall and associated buildings now stand, there was a nursery.  The (St Finbar's) nursery had to be sold when the Nepean Highway was widened in the late 1970s-early 1980s.

It is believed that Father Ashe wrote a history of St Finbar’s in 1948.  We are not sure if any copies exist today, but if anyone has a copy, for loan or otherwise, the parish would love to see it.

Another reference work of a more general nature is “Pioneer Catholic Victoria”  by Rev. W. Ebsworth (published in 1973). Coincidentally this book also contains a lot of history surrounding the political turmoil in Victoria in the 1950s and 1960s.

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